The Manipur Files: Complexities of Ethnic Clashes
Posted at 26-July-2023 / Written by Rohit Bhatt
Manipur, a state in northeast India, is known for its beautiful hills and valleys. It is home to different communities, like the Meiteis in the central area and hill tribes like Kukis and Nagas in the surrounding regions. However, the state has faced political and ethnic tensions for a long time, which recently turned violent.
The Complex Situation
The political landscape in Manipur is complex. Out of the 60 seats in the Legislative Assembly, 19 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST), which includes either Naga or Kuki tribes. The remaining 40 seats are unreserved general constituencies, of which 39 were won by Meitei candidates in the last election. This lopsided representation has led to complaints from tribal groups, who feel that government spending and development are disproportionately concentrated in the Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley. The Meiteis make up 53% of the state's population.
Adding to the complexities, the Land Reform Act of Manipur restricts Meiteis from settling in the hilly regions without the permission of the local district councils. This measure aims to protect the interests of the tribal communities and preserve their traditional way of life.
The Tension Buildup Begins
In 2023, the Manipur government initiated efforts to remove illegal immigrants from settlements in reserve forest areas. Officials claimed that illegal immigrants from Myanmar had been settling in Manipur since the 1970s, leading to concerns about the impact on local communities and the environment. However, these efforts triggered tensions with the Kuki tribe and other tribal communities who also have villages in these reserve forest areas.
In February 2023, the BJP-led state government launched an eviction drive that was perceived as anti-tribal by the Kukis. The Kukis feared that the eviction drive might not only affect them directly but also have implications for other tribals living in reserve forest areas.
The core Issue
The situation took a more significant turn on April 20, 2023, when judge of the Manipur High Court directed the state government to "consider the request of the Meitei community to be included in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list." The Kuki community was alarmed by this directive, as it feared that granting ST status to the Meiteis would allow them to purchase land in the prohibited hilly areas, leading to potential encroachment on tribal territories.
In protest against the state government's actions, the tribal groups called for a total shutdown on April 28, 2023. The situation escalated as a mob set fire to the gym where Chief Minister N. Biren Singh was scheduled to inaugurate, resulting in vandalism and destruction of property. To control the escalating situation, Section 144 (of the Criminal Procedure Code) was imposed, and a five-day internet shutdown was enforced.
The confrontation between protesters and the police led to clashes, with the authorities using tear gas shells to disperse the mobs. The violence further intensified on May 3, when the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) called for a "Tribal Solidarity March" in Churachandpur district, which turned violent.
Amidst the unrest, the mostly Kuki tribal population in non-tribal areas faced attacks on their residences and churches. Even a Kuki MLA, Vunzjagin Valte of the BJP, who represented the tribal headquarters of Churachandpur, was attacked during the riots while returning from the state secretariat. To control the situation, the Manipur government issued a "shoot at sight" order on May 4, 2023.
Viral Video & Reaction
On July 19, 2023, a video went viral on Twitter, shocking the nation. The video showed two Kuki women being forcibly paraded naked by a mob of around many people. According to police complaints, two Kuki men and three women were blocked by a Meitei mob while trying to escape violence. The men were killed, and the women were subjected to a horrific assault. One of the victims alleged that the police were involved, further heightening the gravity of the incident.
The delayed response by the authorities in taking action and arresting the culprits was met with public outrage. It raised concerns about the state of law and order and the protection of vulnerable communities.
On the other hand, the Indian media paid little attention to the situation in Manipur because they were more focused on getting high TRP. While Manipur was facing serious problems and many people were suffering, the media chose to show more exciting and dramatic news to attract more viewers.
BJP MLA Reactions
In response to the High Court's recommendation to include Meiteis in the ST list, a BJP MLA, Dinganglung Gangmei, petitioned the Supreme Court of India against the decision. Additionally, all ten Kuki MLAs, including eight from the Bharatiya Janata Party, issued a statement demanding a separate body to administer their community under the Indian constitution. They alleged that the violence had been "tacitly supported" by the BJP-led state government and expressed fears about living under a Meitei-majority administration.
The escalating situation also saw the resignation of BJP's vice-president from the state of Mizoram, R. Vanramchhuanga, who accused the BJP governments in the center and the state of supporting the demolition of churches.
High Court Judgement & Supreme Court Intervention
The Manipur High Court's order to include Meiteis in the ST list was met with criticism from the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declared the High Court's order factually incorrect and against established constitutional principles. The Chief Justice stated that the High Court's ruling went against previous judgments that state that judicial orders cannot change the ST list.
Despite the Supreme Court's intervention, the damage caused by the violent clashes and the delayed response to the video's circulation remains a significant concern.
Where the Center & State Government Failed
Even though Manipur has a BJP government in both the state and central levels, they still haven't been able to solve the issue. The violent clashes have led to a severe humanitarian crisis in Manipur. With thousands seeking refuge in relief camps, the living conditions have become dire. While some basic provisions like food have been provided, essentials such as healthcare, sanitation, and sanitary pads are overlooked, leaving many vulnerable individuals without proper care and support.
The education system has also been gravely affected, as many children are unable to attend school due to the ongoing unrest and destruction of educational facilities. The lack of access to quality education may have long-term implications for the future generation, hindering their chances of a better life.
One of the most significant concerns stemming from the clashes is the delayed response by the authorities in taking appropriate action. The viral video that exposed the horrific mistreatment of Kuki women brought the issue to the forefront, and it happened on 4th May 2023, making it more than 2 and a half months old. However, the fact that it took months for arrests to be made raises questions about the effectiveness and efficiency of the state's law enforcement and judicial system.
What should be done?
After the violence and long-standing tensions, it is very important for everyone involved to focus on healing and making peace. We need to deal with the root causes of the problems, talk openly with each other, and make sure that the victims get justice. By doing this, we can create a future in Manipur where everyone can live together in harmony. Political leaders must rise above their differences and prioritize the welfare of the people they represent. Constructive discussions can help bridge the gap between different communities and build trust.